US net neutrality civil war continues

Net neutrality has been a contentious issue all over the world, but nowhere more so than the US perhaps because there such issues tend to be seen more in black and white. Europe has taken a more nuanced view that has achieved greater consensus by allowing some wriggle room for ISPs under the guise of congestion management or to ensure network integrity. In practice they can still throttle torrents and rein back 4K video streams which consume an undue amount of bandwidth at the expense of others and just call it network management.

Even so, Europe’s relatively pure version of net neutrality was actually criticized for going too far by adopting an unpractical one size fits all approach to content and services with widely varying requirements. After all Angela Merkel no less was calling in 2014 for Internet services to be split into a free and fast version.

Ironically it was the US which implemented one of the strongest versions of net neutrality, but this came after wrangling between Telcos on the one hand and content owners or OTT service providers on the other, backed by Internet freedom advocates and opposed by Republican economic libertarians, leaving consumers caught in the middle. Finally, towards the end of his Presidency, Barrack Obama’s FCC succeeded in pushing through net neutrality when in February 2015 the FCC ruled in favor of it by reclassifying broadband as a common carrier under Title II. This meant it fell under established rules, treating broadband services as utilities prohibited from preferential or restrictive access.

But Trump was bent on repealing this legislation and at the start of his presidency picked Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the FCC and longtime opponent of net neutrality regulation, to head the agency. He supported the arguments advanced by operators such as Comcast, that net neutrality throttled innovation instead of traffic and encouraged illegal peer to peer services carried by the likes of Bit Torrent. The new FCC voted to repeal net neutrality in December 2017, but since then, democrats in the US Senate have pledged to force a vote set on reversing the repeal. The actual vote could succeed because the Republicans now have just a 51-49 majority in the Senate and at least one of them is in favor of net neutrality. However, a reversal would also require support from the second executive body, the House of Representatives, where the Republicans have a more substantial majority of 239 to 193 at the latest count.

Even if the chance of a repeal looks slim, the federal nature of US governance means that some States will look for ways of achieving the same goal. Several States including California and New York are considering making laws to protect network neutrality under their jurisdiction, but this is being vigorously opposed by the big ISPs such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, with backing from the wireless comms trade association CTIA.

On the other hand, the big tech companies including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix are strongly behind net neutrality.

It looks like there is no end in sight to the US net neutrality civil war, which may have the effect of preserving the current diverse range of interpretations in other countries. There is no clear signal from Uncle Sam.